Height: 12½ in. (32 cm.)
Ernst Beyeler, Basel, Swtizerland, before 1990

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Lot Essay

Among iconic works of African art, the Punu masks are one of the most desirable. Since the beginning of the beginning of the 20th century, collectors, dealers and artists were fascinated by their powerful interiority. These masks were worn by dancers standing on high stilts during funerary ceremonies called mukudja. Referring to a young woman's spirit, the white face, covered with kaolin, symbolized reincarnation.

Punu masks played a special role among the Fauves. In Matisse's Portrait of Madame Matisse (1913) the mask-like face undeniably references this style in its white, painterly surface, and geometry of line. Even at the time, the critics recognized the non-European influence as when Salmon in 1913 described the portrait as that of a 'woman in blue wear[ing] a wooden mask smeared with chalk'' (in Flam, 1984: 230).
The white, mineral-coated masks from Gabon were well-known in Paris at that time. Picasso had a Punu mask, which may well have been one of his first acquisitions of African art. Photos exist as early as 1910 depicting it in his studio, and there is a photo of Frank Burty Haviland with the mask in the background on the wall of his studio on Boulevard de Clichy (1911-12) (see Stepan 2006: 95).
It is not surprising to see this classic archetype among the African works of art from Beyeler's personal collection.

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